Remote vehicles tapped for duty

Deepwater Gulf Coral Study Begins

A $3.7 million, four-year study of deepwater corals in the Gulf of Mexico – focused on the relationship between them and the oil and gas industry – began its second year of work in late August by the Minerals Management Service (MMS).

The study, which is a collaboration of three federal agencies, four academic institutions and a private company, is concentrating on deepwater coral communities that have formed on natural hard bottom areas, oil and gas platforms and on abandoned and sunken ships.

The operation is using remotely operated vehicles, including the ROV Jason II from Woods Hole.

Gregory Boland, biological oceanographer for MMS in Herndon, Va., said the need to study deeper coral areas in the Gulf began to surface in the 1990s, as oil and gas activity pushed into deeper waters and when a moderate-sized coral community at about 1,500 feet was discovered.

“MMS realized that as the discoveries were occurring deeper, we needed to start a study to explore and protect them,” he said.

“Basically, the exploration and understanding on these biological habitats and deepwater corals allows MMS to avoid and protect these sensitive communities from oil and gas activities through revised regulatory policies.”

Echoing that point is Liz Birnbaum, director of MMS, who said, “This study will provide MMS with an in-depth understanding of these vital deepwater communities and how we can best protect them. As more of our activities move into deeper water, this information is necessary for us to serve as stewards of the marine environment.”

Pushing Deeper

According to Boland, the program – sponsored by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) – has three main areas of interest:

  • The Natural Hard Bottoms.
  • Three quarters of the emphasis will be in finding out how many areas of the Gulf have thriving deepwater communities.
  • There are 8,000 potential sites in the GOM where these habitats can be explored.
  • “If there is something on them, what is it?” he asks. “And which ones require environmental protection? Which don’t?”
  • The Deepwater Platforms.
  • What happens to them? Should they be completely removed (which is present policy)?
  • “It will be interesting to see if these artificial reefs procedures should change,” Boland said. “Some environmentalists feel the platforms should be pulled up because of the scenic blight; others feel that due to the coral communities that have formed, they should stay. Industry interests, seemingly, would be more inclined to leave the abandoned structures where they are due to cost concerns.”
  • Boland says another sub-section is the biological communities that can be explored on shipwrecks.
  • “World War II wrecks are already forming coral, demonstrating that substantial coral habitats can develop in a relatively short time.”
  • The Star Trek Metaphor.
  • New technology allows scientists to go where they’ve never gone (and deeper than ever) before. With both manned and unmanned vessels, exploration can now adapt to the changing conditions and challenges in the Gulf.
  • Research vessels and underwater vehicles for the project are provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
  • The research team includes scientists from Louisiana State, Pennsylvania State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Temple universities, plus from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, C&C Technologies, the Smithsonian Institution and Dauphin Island Sea Lab. The contract went to a private firm, TDI Brooks International, located in Bryan, Texas.

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Emphasis: Gulf Coast